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Eileen Anderson-Fye, Center for Culture, Brain and Development

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Christopher Fye
  • Published Sep 1, 2003 8:00 AM

When Eileen Anderson-Fye was offered a postdoctoral fellowship with UCLA’s Center for Culture, Brain and Development last fall, it was “a dream come true,” she recalls.

here were two reasons: First, with its distinctive combination of neuroscience, psychology and anthropology, the center could help her extend her doctoral research on the psychological development of adolescent girls in Belize, located on the eastern coast of Central America. Second, Professors M. Belinda Tucker and Keith Kernan, both of psychiatry and biobehavioral science, were doing a project among Belizean immigrants in Los Angeles that paralleled her own research.

Since coming to UCLA, Anderson-Fye has been sharing methods and information with Tucker and Kernan. “Cultural change can happen because of cultural globalization” — the impact of Western television and tourism on teenagers in Belize, for example — “or because of immigration,” Anderson-Fye says. Her unique fellowship, funded by the Foundation for Psychocultural Research, offers an opportunity to see if there are differences in the ways Belizean girls at home and abroad respond to rapid change.

Anderson-Fye began to investigate the connection between gendered psychological development and cultural context as an undergraduate at Brown University. That interest took her to Harvard University for graduate studies, but it was a marine biologist’s offer of a free vacation that took her to Belize.

Instead of spending time at the beach, Anderson-Fye talked with the locals and explored a coastal town where a great influx of tourists increases the impact of Western culture. “The intellectual questions I had were the same ones that the community was struggling with,” she says.

Working with adolescent girls in a local high school and the surrounding community, Anderson-Fye found that, unlike teens in other countries, Belizean girls seemed unaffected by Western messages about body image that often lead to eating disorders. However, after making contact with Western ideas about physical and sexual abuse, many who were abused as children developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Did the brain changes associated with PTSD happen at the time of the abuse and lie dormant, Anderson-Fye wondered, or did the changes occur only with a reinterpretation of what the girls had experienced? She hopes neuroscience will help her find answers.

With the demands of her studies and research, she feels fortunate to have a supportive husband, Chris, who generously agreed “to give up our very pleasant lives in Boston and move out here with me.” As they build new lives in Los Angeles — lives that include year-round biking at the beach — Anderson-Fye says that her great expectations about UCLA have been fulfilled. “My postdoc is phenomenal,” she says. “It’s better than I could have hoped for.”

Eileen Anderson-Fye is the associate director of the Schubert Center for Child Development and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University. Presently she is on leave as a 2006 National Academy of Education/Spencer Fellow. - (Updated 1/07)